Mr. President, who are you wearing?

Story highlights

Mitt Romney and President Obama both lean toward a conservative wardrobe

Romney has dressed down on the campaign trail, perhaps to show he's a normal guy

Both sides have received backlash over fashion flubs, Paul Ryan in particular

Fashion insider: Ann Romney and Michelle Obama are "the peacocks of the campaign"

CNN  — 

From the red carpet to the White House, a public figure’s fashion choices convey intent and state of mind.

During Tuesday’s presidential debate, the flashbulb-wielding peanut gallery will express more curiosity about health care reform and foreign policy than about who designed Mitt Romney’s ensemble. But while what each candidate is wearing certainly isn’t ballot-worthy, neither campaign seems to be taking any chances – even with something as small as an American flag lapel pin.

“The littlest things can throw a campaign so the candidates tend to keep it safe and let the wives be the peacocks of the campaign,” said Maren Hartman, runway analyst and director of U.S. content for WGSN, a fashion forecasting service.

Despite their political leanings, Hartman said both Romney and President Obama tend to lean toward the conservative side when it comes to wardrobe policy.

“When it comes to things like creating brand image where everybody does the same thing or people are consistent, it helps consumers and voters remember who they’re looking at,” said Hartman, calling to mind Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck, jeans and New Balance sneakers; Mark Zuckerberg’s gray T-shirts; and even Rick Santorum’s sweater vests.

Romney’s campaign-trail uniform of a button-down Oxford shirt with rolled-up sleeves and blue jeans helps disassociate him from the immense personal wealth that has often been a point of contention, said Hartman. Obama, on the other hand, is more likely to appear on the campaign trail in a tailored power suit, rolling his sleeves or taking off his jacket for a more casual look, she said.

“I think he’s much better off in a suit,” iconic American designer Tommy Hilfiger told CNN’s Piers Morgan about President Obama. “He needs to be in a suit and he’s really professional and proper in a suit and he’s being photographed all the time so he should have his game on.”

Meanwhile, Republican vice presidential contender Paul Ryan has been lambasted in heavy-hitting fashion publications like Women’s Wear Daily, Esquire and the New York Times Style Section for his poorly tailored suits.

Bruce Pask, the men’s fashion editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, told Cathy Horyn, The New York Times fashion critic: “I think he suffers from the misconception that the size a guy wears directly correlates with his masculinity. In their minds, being a 42 is more manly than a 40. And yet what actually happens when a guy wears something too big is the obvious: He looks smaller, dwarfed by shoulders that are too big, a shirt collar that is too roomy, lapels that are too wide.”

“I think he looks like an American businessman on a weekend and I think he’s trying to portray that – I think he wants people to think he’s the guy next door in his dress, so I think he’s accomplishing that,” said Hilfiger of Ryan.

Romney, Ryan love North Face. Founder finds that ironic

Of course, what the candidates’ wives wear gets even more scrutiny.

“I think Michelle Obama brought back that focus on fashion and the first lady having a look – and that trickles over to the men as well,” said Hartman.

Although style mavens generally tend to covet the first lady’s ensembles, Michelle Obama did receive heavy criticism when she opted for an Alexander McQueen gown for a 2011 state dinner with Chinese President Hu Jintao, instead of a more diplomatic choice of an Asian-American designer.

And long before Big Bird took center stage during the last presidential debate, another yellow bird ruffled a few feathers.

In May, Ann Romney faced a backlash after sporting an off-the-rack $990 Reed Krakoff T-shirt with a prominent yellow bird design during an interview on CBS’s “This Morning.”

Critics called her choice to wear such an expensive staple item “out of touch.”

According to Emily Barnett, a Parsons School of Design assistant professor, color choice is also powerful visual tool – whether viewers know it or not. McDonald’s is one of the most famous examples of color theory with its branded combination of yellow and red. Red is known to illicit feelings of hunger while yellow tends to convey a sense of rush; a fitting combination for a fast food chain.

Barnett said since the late Tim Russert of “Meet the Press” popularized the concept of red (Republican) and blue (Democrat) states, who wears what color tie has been a very circumscribed choice. In the most recent debate, Romney opted for a red, diagonally striped tie while Obama opted for a blue tie with a very minimal pattern.

Romney’s choice of diagonals was smart, said Barnett because diagonals imply “a strong sense of movement.” Obama’s small, muted pattern fell in line with his more laid back performance in the debate, she said.

As for the wives, Barnett said both women made smart wardrobe choices for the last debate, including the first lady’s choice of a warmer blue suit. “That kind of color is a symbol to her loyalty,” said Barnett – very fitting on debate night, but also the couple’s 20th wedding anniversary.

Ann, keeping with the patriotic red, white and blue palette, opted for an ivory suit. “That’s a color that in scientific terms reflects all colors and it also references a fresh, new outlook and peace,” said Barnett.

For Tuesday’s debate, Barnett predicts the candidates will stick with the same tie colors but opt for hints of the opposing color – to promote a more bipartisanship, moderate tone in a tight election.

Do you pay attention to what the candidates and their spouses are wearing? How much of an impact does it make on your opinion of them? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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